LSU plays Clemson in college football’s National Championship tonight, and the Superdome will be packed. That’s not the case for many games – even in the SEC where college football dominates campus conversations.
Attendance has fallen over the last decade and people are trying to figure out why. Is it a new focus for students on academics? Is it millennials playing Fortnite or living on social media? Is it an increase in the percentage of out of state students with no generational fandom for the schools’ teams? All have a marginal effect.
The biggest reason people are staying away in droves is simple economics. It costs a lot of money to go where people have less fun. That’s the calculus leaving thousands of seats empty every Saturday.
Here’s a cost and amenities breakdown for students and alums excited enough about (insert university name here) Football to be in the vicinity of its stadium on a gameday:
Attend the game inside stadium (prices specific to Indiana University because it’s the experience with which I am most familiar):
- Tickets – $50 for adults/$15 for students
- Beer – $7 for a 16-ounce domestic for those with a valid ID
- Food – hotdogs, pretzels, Chick-fil-A, Dippin’ Dots, kettle corn and other snacks at typical inflated price points
- Locked into a specific seat surrounded by specific people on metal bleachers
- Occasional relevant replays
- Unending timeouts with commercials on the video board
- Way too long halftime with brief marching band performance of Beatles hits from 50 years ago
Stay at a tailgate party in the parking lot:
- Tickets – Free
- Beer – Roughly a buck each, if you can’t find a tailgate with endless free beers – and no ID necessary in most cases
- Eat what you bring or what grillmasters cook – usually for free
- Wander and talk to a variety of people while walking around or sitting on comparatively comfortable folding chairs
- 65-inch TVs with the IU game from a variety of angles – and a variety of other games that can be toggled to during timeouts and halftime
- Cornhole, beer pong and other diversions to enjoy when the game gets a little dull
Go to a Bloomington bar an watch:
- Usually no cover
- Full menu
- $3 beers
- Big table with friends
- TVs tuned to every game
Which are you signing up for? Unless you have a son on one of the teams or have a historic or generational tie to the program, why would you pay more money to have a worse time? I chose in this order – tailgate, bar, with live game a distant third.
Coaches and click bait journalists can talk about generational disconnect and love of technology as reasons students stay away. But the decision for those already predisposed to the product (TV ratings show rabid interest in college football) comes down to simple math: F/$, where F equals fun and $ equals expense. When the numerator overwhelms the denominator, empty seats will continue to expand.
An Issue specific to campuses like IU without a surrounding large city (like Columbus, Louisville, Austin or Los Angeles) is lodging. If you don’t live an easy drive from Bloomington and need a hotel, get ready to part with nearly a grand for the privilege of being able to sleep in town. Hotel reservations on a football weekend require a three-night stay with a nightly rate of $250-ish.
This isn’t complex. What would motivate a fan to dig into his or her pocket for an experience that is not clearly superior for what is free elsewhere.
The mystery is not what motivates fans to stay away, but why thousands choose to attend.